What is the relevance of the Galatian error today?
There is a danger of reading the teaching contained in the epistles in a purely abstract way—that is, as applying to a vague group of other people, and not to myself or those with whom I am associated. This is very true when we consider the defects that the apostle Paul deals with in the Galatian epistle, all of which came about as a result of the mingling of law and grace. Thus there is no pressure for Christians to be circumcised today (see Gal. 5: 2), and I may well feel that Paul’s condemnation of the observation of “days and months and times and years” (Gal. 4: 10) only applies to those in the great historic denominations. However, the man of God views all Scripture as “profitable for … correction” (2 Tim. 3: 16) and will appreciate that the desire to be under law (see Gal. 4: 21) may take a more subtle form than overt ritualism. Thus when Paul speaks of being under the law, it is law as a principle, and is not limited to what was delivered to Moses.
In Rom. 14: 21 Paul tells the saints that “[It is] right not to eat meat, nor drink wine, nor [do anything] in which thy brother stumbles, or is offended, or is weak” (see also 1 Cor. 8: 8–13; 10: 32). However, not only must the saints take care to not give offence over such matters, but they must also see to it that they do not easily take offence. Paul was a father to the Corinthian saints (see 1 Cor. 4: 14, 15) but though they did not value him as such he could still declare “Now I shall most gladly spend and be utterly spent for your souls, if even in abundantly loving you I should be less loved” (2 Cor. 12: 15). The atmosphere of Christianity is faith working through love (see Gal. 5: 6), but a legal person is occupied with self, which is why the legal element in Galatia wished to compel the Gentile converts to be circumcised so “that they may boast in your flesh” (Gal. 6: 13). The background to this sad situation is Acts 15: 1: “And certain persons, having come down from Judaea, taught the brethren, If ye shall not have been circumcised according to the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved”. These Pharisees were unhappy that Gentile converts had been brought into blessing without any requirement to “keep the law of Moses” (v5), and they therefore sought to impose circumcision upon them in order that they (the Pharisees) might “not be persecuted because of the cross of Christ” (Gal. 6: 12). Now circumcision was not apostolic teaching, and a not dissimilar principle is in operation when anyone seeks to foist on others what are only his own ideas and reacts badly when they fail to fall into line. It may be over some trivial procedural matter but the fact remains, I ought not to be offended (or give offence) over things that Scripture is silent on. It is not unusual for a multitude of ‘rules’ to grow up amongst a company of saints over time, which, though they may not be wrong in themselves, lack any firm foundation in the Bible. This last characteristic is a critical defect and such traditions must therefore never be presented as having any authority over the soul. If these rules are enforced—or indeed, even if I am only silently upset that they are not being followed—then I am veering into Galatian territory, and it will not be long before the saints will be biting and devouring one another (see Gal. 5: 15).Now clearly a situation where everyone is doing what is “right in his own eyes” (Judges 21: 25) is intolerable because we are all responsible to “walk in [the] Spirit” (Gal. 5: 16) as subject to the Lord. However, it is important to remember there is a distinction between plain instructions from the Word of God, and mutual ‘arrangements’ we may come to based on what seems right. In Acts 15 we read three times of what “seemed good”—once in relation to the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the saints (see v28—and notice that He is also put ahead of the saints) and twice in relation to the saints alone (see vs. 22, 25). The difference is telling: verses 22 and 25 merely tell us who was to bear the message, while the more critical instance in v28 reveals what the message was to contain. Revelation must always decide doctrine—particularly (as in Acts 15), if it is going to be laid upon others (see v28). Of course, at this point in history the canon of Scripture was not closed—hence the Holy Spirit reveals here His mind beyond what is written. However, that is not the case today as Paul has completed the Word of God in a doctrinal sense (see Col. 1: 25) and any who think that they are still receiving fresh revelations even now are making God a liar in His own Word. Thus what merely ‘seems good’ to the saints has no weight in doctrinal matters (whoever utters it), and must not be used to bring other saints into bondage. Yet this is not an infrequent occurrence among God’s people—proving that the Galatian error is far from being a merely abstract issue for those standing apart from the more overt Judaizing elements of Christendom.